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A painful end for painless needle craftsman

Japan's Okano helped children overcome the fear of insulin shots

Masayuki Okano, president of "painless" hypodermic needle maker Okano Kogyo, displays his craftsmanship.

TOKYO -- Masayuki Okano is calling it quits and could be taking his company with him. 

The 85-year-old president of Okano Kogyo, best known for its "painless" hypodermic needles, honed his skills and forged relationships, building his business over decades. In two years, it looks to be over.

Okano had considered turning the company, located in northeastern Tokyo's working-class Sumida Ward, over to a younger family member, then thought better of it. He used to say he planned to retire at age 55, but kept going as new opportunities opened up.

Okano Kogyo traces its roots back to a company founded in 1924 by Okano's father. The company cut its teeth in the metal press business, forming parts such as battery cases for mobile phones out of sheet metal.

The company got its big break in the spring of 2000, when an engineer from medical equipment maker Terumo visited a pediatric clinic. In the waiting room sat children with diabetes who endured four painful insulin injections a day. The engineer felt for the children, who would wince as the needle went in.

He went back to his company and began wrestling with the question of how to administer insulin painlessly. The obvious answer was to make the needle thinner, but that is easier said than done. The skinnier the needle, the harder it is to deliver the insulin. Terumo came up with a way to make one side of the needle wider than the other to allow the insulin to flow.

But Terumo was not equipped to mass produce the needles. It needed a contractor. After being turned down by a hundred or so small factories, Terumo came across Okano Kogyo and its six-man workshop. 

The secret of Okano Kogyo's success is its mastery of molds and presses, which it uses to fashion the hypodermics with a high degree of precision, tightly rolling fan-shaped pieces of sheet metal into ultrathin needles. 

Through a combination of experience and gut instinct, Okano managed to guide his company past a string of setbacks and develop technical skills that caught the eye of big companies. "We are like a hospital that patients rejected by other hospitals come to. We manage to find solutions, and that is why our customers come to us," Okano said.

Okano Kogyo and medical equipment maker Terumo co-own the patent on the companies' needles.   © Kyodo

Today, Terumo and Okano Kogyo turn out millions of painless needles. Although the product is protected by a patent, which it co-owns with Terumo, Okano Kogyo says no competitor could copy its technology regardless.

That technology will live on. Okano plans to transfer his company's manufacturing secrets to Terumo. About six years ago, he brought several Terumo employees on board and spent three to four years training them. He plans to hand over equipment to another client by the time he shuts up shop. Okano said he will not ask clients to hire his employees because they are all around 60 years old.

Okano left the production line about two years ago, but not because of ill health. It is becoming harder to manufacture by hand as factories go digital. The small workshops that used to dot the neighborhood have either moved or shut down, making their way for condominiums. Okano seems content to let his company die a natural death.

Still, he worries that something valuable is being lost. He said he has no intention of taking his knowledge and experience to the grave, but has not found a worthy successor. "There are smart people everywhere, but few people can think for themselves and communicate with others," Okano said.

Okano has kept molds and prototypes created under his father's instruction, hoping they might help future craftsmen. One can never tell. After all, Okano's experience rolling sheet metal into parts for lipstick holders taught him skills that were invaluable in the wildly successful needle business. Stamping out lighter holders decades ago helped him create the world's first lithium-ion battery holders.

"It will not be easy, but I hope that Sumida Ward or other organizations will display our molds and samples to keep up the area's tradition of manufacturing," Okano said.

 

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